Monday, February 26, 2007

Writing Retreat Day Two

Saturday morning I had breakfast with former U.S. Poet-Laureate Billy Collins who was the featured speaker. Okay, I didn't actually sit with him . . . but we were in the same room. He read several of his poems, sharing ideas for his inspiration. I was particulary struck by this comment: "Poetry is a bird. Prose is a potato. Where prose ends, poetry begins." Apparently, his remark reflects a friendly feud with a fiction writer (name unknown to me), but it made me think of "found poems" by taking a piece of prose and pulling words and phrases from it to create a poem. I often assigned this to my students as we were reading a novel or short story and was always amazed at the different poems emerging from the same piece of prose.

Too often teachers beat both prose and poetry to death, encouraging students to detest it, so I appreciated Collins' suggestion to begin each day reading a poem -- just reading it. No formal analysis, no required discussion -- just read and enjoy! Think about it -- when I eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut, do I analyze its ingredients? I don't think so! I just enjoy it. (Okay, sometimes I might ponder the fat grams -- but that is only sometimes!) The Library of Congress, inspired by Collins' idea, has created a website: Poetry 180: A poem a day for american high schools where teachers can access poems of various writers.

Amy Lannin, Associate Director of the Missouri Writing Project through the University of Missouri, presented a workshop titled, "It's All Routine: Writing Creative Nonfiction." Perfect timing as that was the week's genre for my PCLOWC. Her presentation focused on how every day routines could provide inspiration for creative nonfiction. Using her own work as an example, she shared part of an essay she had written about packing a suitcase for a family trip. As she explored the topic, the piece eventually evolved into a memoir of packing for her grandmother as she left her home of forty years.

I liked her suggestion to freewrite a list of routines. Choose one and list all the steps of the routine. Think about the routines within the routines. Now, choose an object from this routine. Describe the object. Personify it. All of this prewriting moves the writer deeper into the subject matter. Once a text is drafted, Amy demonstrated how working with sentence structure (Her focus was participle phrases.) could take the writer more deeply into piece.

Books Amy recommended are noted in the sidebar. I'm familiar with Barry Lane's After the End, which I used when I was teaching. Though geared to working with students' texts, it has valuable ideas for any writer. Zoom by Istvan Banyai is a picture book that depicts zooming into the details or additional stories of a topic, and I definitely want to add it to my library. The pictures were fascinating!

Amy is a lovely woman -- warm and professional -- just being around her is a joy, and her presentation was excellent! In fact, I left with an idea taken from the routine list she had us make.

On the way out of town, my friends and I stopped at our favorite tea room at the Yankee Peddler. It has become a tradition to lunch there before leaving for home. I topped off my sandwich with a warm slice of chocolate cake. (Talk about fat grams!) What a sweet way to end my writing retreat, which I hope will also become a tradition!

My Retreat: Day One

"The weather outside was frightful, but the writing so delightful."

Thursday evening ushered in bitter temperatures, but Friday morning I was cozy in my new pink and white nightgown and fluffy pink robe. The writing muses were smiling on me as my friends and I were assigned a suite (at no cost to us because of a hotel bookkeeping glitch) overlooking the lake at Osage Beach in the Ozarks. Room-service breakfast arrived late but warm, so I munched on scrambled eggs, toast, and Canadian bacon, while the tap, tap, tap of the laptop keys kept me company. I chose to write about the tender memory of my grandson's still birth. This topic evoked tears, but the few details I had scribbled on a scrap paper needed to be turned into something more, and I knew it would be safe to share it with my PCLOWC -- women I have never seen face to face, yet feel linked to through our writers' hearts.

In the early afternoon, I went to a Scholastic Books' display and bought a couple of books for my granddaughters and then browsed the vendors' tables. With my goodies in tow, I headed back to the room and began drafting a piece about being a mother-in-law. I didn't get too much done on it, for the next thing I knew, it was time to attend a reception for Writing Project members.

Later that evening, we all attended an open mic. Being reader #28, I grew nervous as I listened and enjoyed others' readings. Insecurities whispered in my ear. Who was I to share my work with these people? They were obviously real writers. But as I shared a piece titled "La Fleur" (posted at marmee's musings), I purposely looked for my friend Betty Jo, my writing buddy and cheerleader. Her smile gave me courage to believe I, too, deserved my brief moment in the writers' spotlight.

I was especially intrigued by one woman who is married to a former Buffalo Bills football player. Her narrative was centered on a ouija board's prediction of the Bills making it into the playoffs.. Though I'm not an avid follower of professional football, her mention of the Kansas City Chiefs caught my attention, and I wanted to interview her: How did she become a writer? How did she end up in Missouri? Did she teach then? Where does she teach now?

Back in our suite, we played a word game (can't remember the name). Then Dottie (my roommate) and I and turned out the lights, quietly chatting. Our sentences floated lazily through the air -- becoming phrases -- becoming words -- becoming pauses. I drifted off thinking what a lovely way to spend a day -- with people I love, doing the thing I love. I looked forward to Saturday.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Write Away

Today I am leaving for a writing getaway! Though I have attended and helped facilitate a local retreat for the past four years, this is the first time I've done this on my own. So, tomorrow while two friends are attending workshops at the Write to Learn conference at the Lake of the Ozarks, I'm going to dedicate the day to writing. I have even decided to splurge on room service for lunch tomorrow! (I love room service!)

Another plus, I'm registering for Saturday's conference because Bill Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate is speaking at breakfast, and there are a couple of writing workshops where I hope to pick up some tips or receive further inspiration.

Everything is packed, ready to go! Hope my Muse shows up!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Writing Friends

Today has been a good day for writing. Not my own but for some writing friends. In our PCLOWC, I read a beautiful piece titled "Nancy's Kitchen" written by Nancy's daughter-in-law. The piece took me back to my childhood, sitting around my Grandma Young's oak table that seated 10 people comfortably. It also reminded me of my Grandma Fizer whose hands performed magic on every chicken she fried and every cake batter she mixed (from scratch!) I've been thinking about writing about her talent for a while now. and this essay has inspired me further.

Other writing by Caroline can be found at "food for thought." The link is in my list, and I encourage you to visit there.

Then another lady (my writing partner for the next five weeks) began a blog! You can visit her at "Life Comes in Bunches Like Bananas." Her link is also in my list.

Actually, all the writers in my class who have blogs are listed in my link list. I hope you will visit them all! Some great writing is going on here -- some great "cyberspace" friendships are being forged.

Living in a writing community is so rewarding!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Marmee's Brag Book

Please allow me a moment to be a proud mother: I crafted the following sentence (by the grace of God) and am so pleased with it, I want to march it across the page and give it a moment in the spotlight.

"I do not walk perfectly, but neither do I walk defeated."

Tha's all. Just wanted you to see one of my "children." :)

Monday, February 5, 2007

Keeping On

This week's lesson in the PCLOWC class is revision.

Having taught writing for so long, I know what to address in revision. But while reading through the class notes, I realized how much time and energy I waste by trying to address such ideas while I create a first draft. Also, being the literary magazine advisor and an copyeditor for Literary Mama has made me so conscious of tightening a text that I'm letting that also interfere with drafting. Doing this stifles fluency and creativity!

So, I tell myself once again "Just write, Kathy. Just write."

Saturday, February 3, 2007

A Burning Issue

Every year when the "Back to School" signs plaster the windows of local stores and the school buses roll out of the bus barns, administrators across America take up their collective chant: "Failing is not an option! Failing is not an option!"

Sounds good, doesn't it? Makes you picture the teachers, parents, and students pulling together, using every tool available in their communities and school districts to help each student achieve. Makes you proud to see the American spirit of can do thriving in the halls of academia!

So, what are teachers doing to make this mission statement a reality? Everything! They attend seminars, workshops, and conferences year round (often at their own expense). They sit in endless professional development meetings listening to professional gurus espouse the latest educational trend, such as the one a neighboring school district is committed to for this school year: "Failure is Not an Option." They strategize, plan, collaborate, and create, always seeking to make the curriculum, lessons, and activities relevant to their students. They post homework, test dates, and other pertinent information at their websites, in e-mails, or on homework hotlines. They contact the failing student's counselor, parents, administrator, and the advisory teacher. They fill out weekly grade reports requested by parents and return parents' phone calls or e-mails. The list goes on and on and on! There is no end to what most teachers do in the effort to motivate the failing student.

And what do the failing students do to improve their poor grades? From this teacher's vantage point: Nothing. They don't do their homework; they don't study for tests; they don't listen in class or bring the textbook/supplies. Frequently, they don't even come to school. They do nothing! Oh, wait! They do one thing: make the teacher responsible for their F. Recently a colleague from this same district mentioned above shared this anecdote: ". . . A program called "In the Margin" requires we put a mark in the margin of all students' agendas when they do not turn in an assignment. Then, they have five days to turn it in and still receive credit. . . We cannot require the student to do the work if we did not put the mark in their agenda. Apparently, a sixth grade teacher gave a student a zero on an assignment that was never turned in. The parents called and complained and our principal told the teacher that because she didn't put her mark in the agenda, the student could not be held responsible for the assignment."

She goes on to ask: "So- when exactly is this about the student's learning? At what point is it NOT our job to be sure the students do what they need to do whether we put a mark in their agenda or not?"

I add to her question: When exactly will the parents understand that it is NOT the teacher's job to supervise the students' study habits and personal schedules outside of the classroom? There is a place where the teacher ends and the student begins, and that place needs to intersect with parental supervision and high standards.

Of course, there are exceptions to this scenario. Things happen – sometimes terrible things – that prevent a student from learning or being successful in a class. There are some teachers whose job performance is insufficient. But when those situations are removed from the equation, what remains? Administrators with good, but misguided intentions, irresponsible students, and enabling parents. And while the students need to bear the responsibility for their choices, the greater burden falls on the parents. Kids will be kids, testing the limits and getting away with what they can; it's the parents that set the appropriate boundaries of accountability and responsibility.

No Child Left Behind and state-mandated tests have created high-stakes education. District funding is partially determined by these tests scores and NCLB ratings. Thousands of dollars of grant money are poured into school districts across America, so our students won't fail. Teachers know it. Would someone please tell the parents?